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Britain: A simple proposal for a new anti-capitalist left
By Simon Hardy
April 15, 2012 -- Posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission, in the interests of left discussion in the wake of George Galloway's success in Bradford West -- I along with a number of other members of Workers Power in Britain, Austria and the Czech Republic have resigned from the organisation. The global capitalist crisis has posed tremendous questions for the radical left about how to go forward. We have increasingly drawn the conclusion that the historical legacy of the post-war left, in particular the Leninist-Trotskyist left, needs to be subjected to far-reaching critique and re-evaluation in light of the contemporary challenges.
The organised left is dogged by sectarianism and opportunism. There are quite literally hundreds of competing orthodoxies, with each sect promoting and defending its own, typically very narrow, conception of revolutionary theory and practice without subjecting their ideas to the critical re-evaluation which we believe is necessary if Marxism is to reach out to far wider layers.
We came to the conclusion that a method of organising exclusively focused on building specifically Leninist-Trotskyist groups prevents the socialist left from creating the kind of broad anti-capitalist organisations, which can present a credible alternative to the mainstream parties.
The post-1991 world presents new challenges to the left and the workers’ movement. Marxism is no longer the natural "go-to politics" of radical activists coming into the movement today. The dramatic shift to the right by social democracy and the business unionism of the trade union movement all took their toll on the capacity of the workers to fight. Now the task of regenerating a movement that can overthrow capitalism is serious one, but in a sense the left has barely begun this task.
As a step forward, in recent months we launched a call for a new anti-capitalist initiative in Britain as a way of uniting sections of the left around a strategic perspective whilst emphasising the creation of a democratic space that is so urgently needed to debate and test out our slogans and tactics. We did not want to simply declare a new organisation, but to carry out patient and serious discussions with broader forces about what such an organisation should look like.
We launched this initiative whilst we were in Workers Power, and although there was agreement that such an organisation was needed, there was growing disagreement on the role of groups like Workers Power within it. This boiled down to whether we saw it as a tactic to achieve a larger Workers Power, or whether the anti-capitalist organisation that came out of it would look very different; more plural, more open, much looser, but still clear on the strategic questions.
As part of this perspective we drew the conclusion that there needed to be an open, "blue skies" discussion on the radical left, involving matters of theory and history, drawing on the new as well as the old, but trying to come to practical conclusions on how we might go forward today. So, we increasingly rejected the model of democratic centralism that states revolutionary organisations should conduct their debates in private and only present their conclusions to the class. While, we don’t reject democratic centralism, our conception of it is unity in action around democratically determined goals, and free and open discussion. We showed in the course of the debate that this was the norm in the revolutionary movement in the decades prior to 1917.
Another problem we encountered was the attitude –- far from a problem of Workers Power alone on the post-war left -– to how Marxist ideas came to be engaged with. It is to Workers Power’s credit that from its foundation it has sought to address the problems of the post-war Trotskyist left in political and "programmatic" terms; the critique had power in identifying a loss of revolutionary continuity in the pre- and post-war years. But the way that Marxism came to be conceived as a result led to a narrowness; thinkers outside of the Marx-Engels-Lenin-Trotsky (and partially Luxemburg) axis tended to be subjected to a form of black and white critique that undermined the kind of engagement necessary for a living and evolving body of thought to develop. This naturally places constraints on critical thinking as the concern to “get it right” tends to undermine the development of an attitude that recognises that a degree of plurality in the evolution of ideas is necessary to try and uncover objective truth, something which is needed for Marxism to develop. (Paul Le Blanc makes similar points in relation to the US SWP.)
Ultimately, we felt there was a conservative intransigence on a part of the majority leadership to alter course on fundamentals, so a parting of the ways became necessary.
We are committed to taking steps towards an anti-capitalist organisation that is opposed to austerity, privatisation, racism, sexism, imperialist war and supports the Palestinians. We believe that mass strikes and demonstrations are needed to bring down the government. We support the building of a rank and file movement across the unions, an essential goal in the context of the pensions sell out by sections of the union movement. We are committed to working towards unity in the anticuts movement and overcoming unnecessary divisions which hinder our movement. We still believe that the working class is a crucial agent of revolutionary change, though we want to explore new and more creative ways of fusing socialist ideas with the kind of struggles that are going on today.
We have no illusions that unity can be created by simple decree, and we are aware that divisions built up over decades can be hard to break down. But we think it is necessary to build a new kind of left, one that overcomes our fragmentation, that unites the best of the (though we seek to critique these labels) new left with the old left.
As part of our commitment to the founding of a new plural and broader anti-capitalist organisation we are not establishing yet another group on the left or establish a new orthodoxy in the sense of a new narrowly conceived appraisal of "what went wrong" in the 20th century. While we need to think about historical questions, discuss and debate where we think the mistakes were made, this needs to inform the strategy we choose today, rather than imagining we can simply repeat the past.
Ultimately, the whole left needs to look forwards, not back. To the organisations still around today that were created in the 1950s, 1970s and more recently, all the many splits and splinters, we ask a simple question. Do you think your organisation is up to the challenges and tasks posed by the current crisis of capitalism? We do not think that any left group can honestly answer that in the affirmative which is why we all need a radical rethink.
Although we know we need mass forces to launch a new party, we are not content to merely wait for a new party to be formed by the trade unions –- there is a pressing need for the radical left to take steps towards unity in the hear and now. We need an energetic and active campaign to build the kind of organisation that can bring the left into the mainstream. This anti-capitalist initiative we see as being a stepping stone for something greater and not an end in itself. [Respect's] George Galloway's success shows what is possible, as does the support for [the Front de Gauche's] Jean-Luc Melenchon in France. Will the Marxists and radical left seize the initiative and prove itself capable of a radical rethink, or will we get more of the same?
We have no bad feelings towards the comrades in Workers Power. We want to work with them and other groups and individuals to build a united, plural organisation in which splits can be avoided and the inevitable differences are factored into the day to day practice of the organisation; we recognise there will be debate, see this as a good thing, and have a practical unity where we agree.
The experiences that we have from our time in Workers Power are invaluable. We were in the anti-war movement, in solidarity visits to Palestine, active in the student movement and reported from Tahrir Square during the early days of the Egyptian revolution. We have taken strike action in defence of pensions and campaigned in defence of the National Health Service. We learnt the foundation of our Marxist ideas. In particular, the group has played an important role in recent years in emphasising the need for a rank and file movement in the unions, when few socialist organisations took seriously the need for one, nor took practical steps in that direction.
All these experiences help to inform our current views. We believe that there is common ground for large parts of our movement, and that there is tremendous potential in the fightback against austerity to go beyond resistance to discuss new strategies. Any socialists, anti-capitalists, radical trade unionists or social movement activists who are interested in discussing these ideas should get in touch and begin a dialogue with us at email@example.com. We hope these discussions can inform the building of a healthier radical left.
There is a meeting at University London Union at 1pm on April 28, 2012, for anyone who is interested in a new anti-capitalist project. We will not be establishing a new group overnight, we know it will take time and a long process of building up trust. But we need to start that process sooner rather than later.
If you want to contact the new initiative then email firstname.lastname@example.org.